Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Comparative, superlative, and correct thinking

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered some old grammar material, including the old bull-shit that a comparative compares two entities and a superlative three or more.

This is a good example of how undue dumbing-down* can hurt the students’ ability to think correctly and to gain a correct understanding of the matter:

*Or is the teacher or book author that lacking in own understanding?

The respective character of the comparative and superlative is quite different, and the above descriptions are outright contrary to accepted use:*

*I make some reservations for different situations in different languages, but this applies to at least Swedish, German, and English.

The comparative compares with no regard for numbers. For instance, all of the following are grammatically correct: “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.”, “I and Tom are taller than Dick and Harry.”, “I, Tom, and Dick are taller than Harry.” Equally correct is: “No-one among the four whose name begins with a ‘Q’ is taller than I am.”—even though there is no object to compare “I”/“me” with. Even dropping to comparing nothing to nothing is possible: “No woman taller than fifty feet is shorter than any man taller than sixty feet.”*

*There are neither women nor men of that size. Note that the paradoxical statement is actually truthful, not just grammatically correct, as long as at least one of the sets is empty.

In contrast, the superlative makes a statement about who in a certain set has a certain characteristic to the highest degree. For instance, “I am the tallest of us four.” says that “I” have the characteristic of being tall to a higher degree than any other element of this set of four. Again, this applies with no regard for numbers: “Out of Tom and Dick, Tom is the tallest.” implies a comparison between two entities—the alleged realm of the comparative. Indeed, even “Out of those among the four whose name begins with a ‘T’, Tom is the tallest.” is correct, despite an implied comparison involving just a single entity. In the same one-person set, Tom is obviously also the shortest, oldest, youngest, thinnest, fattest, best and worst educated, … (It could be argued, however, that the superlative fails on empty sets, due to the resulting weakness of formulation. If so, I would see it more as a matter of syntax than of logic, in that the concept extends to empty sets but is harder to formulate using e.g. English.)

From another perspective, it might* be sensible to view the comparative as comparing two** different sets and the superlative as discussing one single set. (In which case the “two vs. three” thinking is turned into “two vs. one”.) For instance, “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.” could be seen as “Everyone in set A is taller than everyone in set B, where set A consists of me and set B consists of Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. (And so on, for the other above examples.) The superlative formulation “I am the tallest of us four.”, in contrast, amounts to “In the set A, I am the tallest element, where set A consists of me, Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. Here we also see the futility of thinking in terms of the number of individual elements, as any of these sets could contain 0***, 1, 2, 3, or e.g. 534 elements.

*Reservations: (a) This might be a too abstract approach for people without prior exposure to set theory. (b) This is a spur-of-the-moment idea, which might have weaknesses that I am not yet aware of. (c) The implied use of “taller” on two levels of recursion in this paragraph should be understandable, but would be unsuitable for a formal definition.

**An extension to more than two might seem plausible in as far as e.g. “All elements of the set A are taller than all the elements of set B and C.” is an acceptable formulation. However, this is still better seen, I suspect, as a comparison between just two sets, one of them being the union of B and C.

***With the above reservation for the superlative and empty sets.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 16, 2019 at 11:36 am

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